College, Featured Gallery / Oct 18, 2010 / 2:30 pm

Who’s Better: John Calipari or Rick Pitino?

We argue. You decide.

JOHN CALIPARI (by A. Macaluso)
When it comes to family, no one is closer than the Italians. You used to be able to say the same about John Calipari and his predecessor, Rick Pitino. Both coaches have known each other ever since they worked together at Five Star Camp. Both head coaches were actually friends in the beginning, with Pitino helping Calipari land the head coaching position at Massachusetts in 1988. However, the friendship quickly turned sour when the two met in the Sweet Sixteen of the 1992 NCAA Tournament.

The once-close friends now share an uneasy truce, which came close to exploding when Pitino openly campaigned for either John Pelphrey or Travis Ford — two of his former players — to replace Billy Gillispie at Kentucky, knowing full well that it was Calipari’s dream job.

Now that he has the job, Calipari has quickly turned into the villain of the story, and everyone outside of Kentucky wants to see him lose. The real question is, who’s really the better coach?

If there’s one thing that Calipari can do better than Pitino, it’s finding a way to bring in the best players, no matter what the cost. Not only was he able to convince John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Xavier Henry to commit to Memphis, but he also slapped clauses into their letters-of-intent so they could go somewhere else if he chose to coach at another school. When he accepted the UK job, Wall and Cousins followed. Those two then led the way as Coach Cal made the Elite Eight in his first season in Lexington.

Calipari is one of those guys that will do whatever it takes to win, and is a mastermind at doing so. College basketball is a cut-throat industry, and he can be as lethal as anybody when it comes to putting a winning team on the floor.

While both coach’s resumes are full of success — Pitino has a slight upper hand with his earning of a national championship with Kentucky in ’96 — you can compare their careers as if they lived the same life. But make no mistake about it, Calipari is quickly coming up the ranks and has a real chance to substantially surpass Pitino’s achievements.

He is already the highest-paid coach in college basketball, earning a whopping $4 million annually after signing an eight-year, $32 million deal, and managed to win an SEC championship in his first season with Kentucky. Calipari brought the Wildcats back into championship contention after the previous season, when they failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years.

Pitino can no longer hide from Calipari’s footsteps. He’s changed offenses and schools since hitting the national stage, and welcomes anyone that is willing to help him win. Heading into the season with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country (again), Calipari is on a roll and he’s the type of coach that I’d love to play for: One who refuses to lose.

RICK PITINO (by A. Burton)
Basketball being the ultimate team sport, I’m wary of overvaluing what a championship means to an individual competitor. We don’t need a Podoloff trophy to tell us Dirk, J-Kidd and T-Mac are great players. Or that Jerry Sloan, George Karl and Rick Adelman are great coaches. One man scoring 30, dropping a triple-double, or drawing up genius X’s and O’s can only get you so far when success is steeped in a a dozen others pulling their weight.

But judging college basketball coaches? Championships absolutely matter. College coaches can control their destiny. They choose where they want to go, they make their own rosters, implement their own systems, and don’t have to worry about managing salary caps or out-of-control millionaire egos.

So in pitting Rick Pitino against John Calipari, I have to take the guy who has the ring. Pitino won the national championship in 1996 at Kentucky, and deserves at least a chain or something for constructing the foundation of the ’98 Kentucky team that won another national title under Tubby Smith, after Pitino had gone pro.

Pitino has since built another powerhouse at the Bluegrass State’s little-brother university. In nine years at Louisville he is 220-86 (.719), making seven NCAA Tournament appearances, three Elite Eights, and one Final Four. Pitino guided the program through its transition from Conference-USA to the Big East and quickly established the Cardinals as a perennial threat alongside traditional powers Syracuse, UConn and Georgetown.

Calipari has a gift for recruiting. He has already landed three monster freshmen classes at Kentucky, headlined by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins (2009), Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter (2010), and Michael Gilchrist and Marquis Teague (2011). Superstar point guards are lining up to play for Coach Cal, and the bigs and wings are sure to follow as he compiles Lottery picks on his roster.

With less talent and a tougher conference slate over the majority of the decade, however, Pitino still keeps pace. Calipari’s record over the last nine years includes seven NCAA Tournaments, four Elite Eights, one Final Four, and one NCAA title game loss. Pitino can match that, plus he has four other Final Four appearances on his resume from his tenures at Kentucky and Providence.

Even when Pitino was at UK, he wasn’t knee-deep in NBA talent like Calipari. Guys like Ron Mercer and Jamal Mashburn were obviously studs coming out of high school, but Pitino also took non-All-Americans like Derek Anderson and Walter McCarty and turned them into first-round NBA picks. He took less-heralded recruits like Reece Gaines and Terrence Williams at Louisville and produced Top-15 picks. He took a full-on project in Nazr Mohammad (Pitino likes to joke that Nazr couldn’t run past halfcourt when he arrived at UK) and helped mold a solid pro. Calipari brings in superstars — Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Dajuan Wagner — lets them rock out for a year, then sends them off to the Lottery. He doesn’t have Pitino’s track record of developing players.

Who would I want my son to play for? Neither, because my boy is either going to Georgetown to fulfill his Dad’s unrequited dreams, or he’ll shock the recruiting world by putting an HBCU on the basketball map. But who would I hire to teach my kid how to play basketball? It has to be Pitino.

Who do you think is the better coach?

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    The guy at Duke, no recruiting violations!

  • control

    Pitino! Fuck Calipari!

    I don’t even watch or follow college ball though, to be honest.

  • Ray

    Ill take Calipari. Pitino really has done anything without Kentucky

  • Aaron

    the guy at Duke should have one and a final 4 vacated but he is protected. maggette

  • Tariq

    Calipari all day

  • Yoko

    I guess if your talking strictly basketball you could say Pitino but would you want your kid to learn about adultery and having to pay for abortions to try to avoid getting extorted? I don’t know just saying. I think Rick had plenty of talent though. Just as much as Calipari. I mean Wagner, Rose, Evans, Wall, and Cousins. That’s about it really. Rick had Mashburn, Walker, Mercer, Smardo Samuels(was ranked #1 coming out) so that is 5 locks for NBA vs 4. Outside of those 5 guys to this point has he really had that much more talent than Rick Pitino? And there is a difference between great NCAA players and NBA talent. I think of guys like Anthony Epps, Jeff Shepherd, Wayne Turner, and Tony Delk as more valuable to a coach than 1 and done guys. It’s debatable which is better but college ball has taken a turn for the worst in recent years regardless. I think Calipari does a great job managing all the egos he recruits and making them play unselfish. But until he gets a ring on it guess he fails..

  • B

    calipari is the better recruiter. But Pitino is the better coach.

  • JAY

    I’d go with Pitino.
    He doesn’t need bluechippers to be successful.

  • haslem

    Pitino all the way

  • Ryan P

    Pitino is washed up. he cant recruit so is left with average players then you get to see he really cant coach unless he has talent. Calipari has him scared so Pitino does a complete 180 and does all the things he says he will never do. Calipari is at a way better program which is hard for me to say

  • J

    Coach Cal

  • Larry

    Yester’year, I’d go with Pitino. Look at Pitino’s KY staff. He had Billy Donovan, a proven A+ recruiter to handle that part. He had Tubby Smith, a great defensive coach. Herb Sendek to do his scouting, Jim O’Brien to do game plan. Give most any coach, except Billy Gillespie, those four guys as assistants and they would do pretty well. Kudos to Pitino for putting that staff together. It has to rate as the all time best coaching staff in the history of NCAA basketball.

    But college basketball has evolved into who can recruit the best talent. If you can’t recruit, you can’t win. Look at Tubby — can’t recruit, can coach, can’t win championships. Today’s market and it is a market, Callipari takes home all the honors.

  • JBKY

    Ummm…5 first round NBA players and you don’t make the Final Four? I think that question answers itself.

  • Richie

    Cal is overrated. He’s had recruiting violations and a lot of controversy surrounding him at UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky. To me it seems like he needs top talent to succeed. And even when he had arguable the top team last year he still lost.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Andrew Macaluso


    It takes more than that to win a championship. Not to mention most of that consisted of freshman. No matter the talent, experience and team chemistry is what matters.

  • High Release

    I prefer Pitino’s waitress-banging sleaze to Calipari’s professional sleaze. Though that is a good way to stain a great white suit.

  • GoBigBlue

    Who cares if Cal’s Cats lost before the final 4. That is what March madness is about, anyone (I MEAN ANYONE) no matter how good of a coach or great of a roster can lose. Look at Kansas last year, they were #1 nearly the entire year and drop second round. It just happens. And Cal doesn’t NEED top talent to win, look at Memphis he didn’t have but a few stars and won 30+ games nearly every year and ran the table on CUSA for 4 years. He’s a good coach and right now is a better coach and recruiter then Pitino. Pitino WAS the better of the 2 in the 90’s and in ’96 it showed. But Pitino has simply “lost it”. ANd Cal has ZERO infractions on him anywhere, do some research idiots he was cleared of all accusations at Umass and Memphis and nothing has come up at UK. It’s just haters hating and I love it. Everyone loves to hate the best….lol.

  • Just a fan

    Do better research. Wall never committed to or signed at Memphis. I do not believe Cousins did either.

  • Wheatgerm

    “cleared of all accusations at Umass and Memphis”?

    He wasn’t even accused.

  • Rybo

    Cal …is A much better coach and teacher…cal gets you to the league….pitino teaches how to cheat on your wife and play over seas…the guy that wrote this needs to stick to and 1

  • jayroon

    Yep, Wall had not signed with anyone yet when Cal took the job and Cousins had verballed to Memphis so not signed so your initial take on the out clauses is false.

    And someone says Pitino doesn’t need bluechippers to win? Wrong, the only title that cat pulled in was with a college squad loaded with 11 future pros. And otherwise, he’s mostly underachieved since he left Lexington.

    Someone else mentions Cal’s “recruiting violations”? Wrong, never had any unlike Slick Rick.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Andrew Macaluso

    @Just a fan

    Cousins de-committed from UAB and committed to Memphis. Wall was about to commit to Memphis before Calipari decided to up and leave for Kentucky. My research is just fine.

  • Wheatgerm

    Slam Online, March 8th, 2009: “Breaking: DeMarcus Cousins Commits to Memphis.” But didn’t sign LOI.

    Don’t ask someone to do better research when you’re not willing to do any research yourself.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Andrew Macaluso

    @ Just a fan

    My apologies, I misread on Wall.

  • Just a fan

    “About to commit?” How do you figure that? Wall did not even commit to Calipari at Kentucky until the final day of the signing period. Pretty tough to assume he was going to commit right before Cal left. I agree he would have gone to Memphis with Cal at the helm, but you never know since Conference USA is not nearly as attractive as a power conference.

    A Wheatgerm. Let’s see…. I am not exactly a writer for a publication now am I? It is fair to expect proper research to be done when the writer works for a legitimate source. Writers are getting worse and worse about not researching properly and often start falsehoods that then are viewed as fact. By your line of thinking… why should I go to the doctor, I can research and perform the surgery myself.

  • kentucky

    Throughout the nineties Pitino was the better of the two. If he had not gone to the pros he would have countless rings. He would be the best coach ever, simply put. He was a hair away of winning the tournament in 97 and would have won the tournament in 98. It was his talent not Orlando’s. Any Dukie or Carolina guy can disagree but truth be told, he would have been up there with John Wooden. Pitino flaked out in the pros and came back to Louisville. If you are a UK fan thats like railing your brothers wife and then getting married. Its just something you don’t do. He has done a great job at UL but last season was sub par and this year it will be brutal. Calipari has had some “issues” with players and so has other coaches, but no one talks about them. Being the Coach at UK means you are more than likely the most hated man in college basketball. Calipari is going to get on a role his next few years hard at UK and be a hell of a coach. I don’t think he will ever be as good as Ricky Three Stacks but time will only tell. Forever and always will hate Pitino until he quits Louisville.

  • jayroon

    Cousins had verbally committed to Memphis but was not bound to his letter of intent because he had not signed one yet. It’s not rocket science hoss.

  • Bill

    Cal is way better. Nobody even says Pitino’s name except that ugly lady he had a kid with

  • Tom B

    I hope your son has as little talent playing basketball as his father does as a writer because it would be a crime for a kid with talent to be turned over to Pitino to learn basketball. Cal had more first rounders last year than RP has had in the last decade. But unless your son is 16 it won’t matter because RP’s time is about up.

  • NBA

    If my kid wants to make millions, then its a no brainer………CAL

  • coffeyallday

    Funny how 98% of Pitino’s success came at Kentucky.

    FREE ENES!!!

  • NBA

    If my kid wants to ride the NBA pine………then Pitino. He hasn’t had a great player in the NBA since Mash and Walker.

  • Chris Rosenthal

    Calipari has surpassed Pitting in all aspects of their professions. Pitino is the past Calipari the future.

  • Fandamn

    Funny thing about Cal winning 30 games a year — he couldn’t do it till the good teams left the CUSA. Not hard to run roughshod on inferior talent — just look at some other bigtime schools back in the days before there was more parity in the big leagues — coughUKcough. When all others in the conference are far below the talent level, of course a team with a few really talented players will win most games — as UK has run the SEC for years — cause no one else there ever cared about BB. Cal can recruit, using whatever dirty means he seems to, but he can’t get them to win the big games. Street ball, no discipline, no skill training in FTs etc will NOT win the big games. Until he changes, I doubt he ever gets the biggest award, no matter how many #1 class recruits he brings in. Most college fans still want the championship — not who has the most NBA draft picks like Cal declared “the biggest day in UK history.” What an idiot.

  • Jen

    Pitino is a desperate coach right now recruiting anything he can get! He has been nothing but mediocre since UL and will never turn that program around! He will never win a championship at UL!

  • Jake

    Pitino had some help in getting McCarty and Anderson really good. He had Walker, Mercer, Delk, Epps, etc. It’s amazing what happens when you’re practice is a tougher match-up than games. And when he doesn’t have a cast like that, he’s busy trying to get his team to be talented with full-court pressure and 3-pt shooting.
    Calipari gets talent to be a team. He gets every player to buy into their role where they are the best fit.

    Juan Palacios had Durant-like skills, Pitino said, “I think you’re a power forward and I’ll place you 15ft and in. I don’t care if you could be an all-around wing player.” Pitino wastes hidden talent and Calipari harnesses it. It’s been obvious trend for the past 8 years.

  • Jake

    Also, remember that Pitino has done what he has in the Big East and at UK. Pretty easy to build programs at those caliber of schools. Steve Lavin is making St. John’s respectable in his first year.
    Calipari built UMass and Memphis basketball.
    It was a lot easier for Pitino to get his teams respected nationally.

  • Phil

    look at how many busts Pitino has had at lil brother. He got a top 2 player and crushed his game. the kid couldnt wait to leave

    Calipari gets the most out of his kids

  • Maggie

    Reece Gaines? Not a good example. From lottery pick to the D League. McCarty was a Parade All-American before Pitino got him. Pitino is washed up as his record and recent recruiting classes prove it. @Kentucky: Elite 8 or better 5 out of 8 tries. @Louisville: Elite 8 or better 3 out of 9 tries, with 2 NIT appearances. Since leaving Camelot, he has tarnished his HOF legacy greatly, with a failed stint at Boston and a personal scandal that should have gotten him fired, had Jurich chosen to use the morality clause in his contract. As it stands now, with another poor sub-par class, he is trying to tamper down expectations by telling fans it will be (another) “bridge” year. This is not what Louisville fans signed up for, I can assure you.

  • 166leslie

    I usually don’t comment on these things but Fandam your so wrong I feel the need to point out some facts. I am a UK fan and I loved the Rick years and hated to see him go. And I believe it remains to be seen how Cal does in the long run at the most winningest program ever.
    Ok, To say that its no big deal to win 30 games a yr is pretty bad. But then to say the SEC didn’t care about bb and let UK win is just plain ignorent. Florida won two titles in a row 2006 and 2007. No real competition in the SEC huh. Then Cal did a great job coaching his first year at UK winning some very close games. He had a freshman loaded squad w big egos and he got them to play as a TEAM. John wall made big plays to win quite a few games including clutch freethrows. Cousins made an amazing last second shot to put us in OT in the conference final. UK lost 2 very close and competative games. The 3rd loss to a hot WV team who got pretty lucky draining 3s while UK had a suck shooting nite. That’s how it goes some nite in the elite eight. Not to shabby for a freshman squad and a new coach.
    So to say UK has it easy in the SEC is retarded. This year we will get beat up. Cal has yet to fully prove himself equal to Rick until he wins a title. That’s obvious. But this Cal bashing crap is just damn brainless. Give the guy a chance and the credit he deserves. He is a winner for sure and a great recruiter. Is he a cheater? Innocent until proven guilty. I think if the NCAA could it would bust him.
    In the end Cal is not bigger than UK bb niether was Rick. I think both will go down a great contributors the the UK tradition that keeps UK at the top of most all catagories. We just need 4 more titles to catch UCLA and then we will be the best ever. Its not easy being the best withqll the rage and jealousy against UK but it is worth it.

  • Human

    Aren’t they the same guy?, always seemed that way to me….in other words…who cares?

  • Katbluefan

    I loved Rick Pitino @ KY in the 90’s but felt like he did KY wrong when he said he wasn’t going anywhere in one breath and then quit in the next. But what really hurt was when he took the job @ UL knowing how much it would hurt the BBN. I still liked him until his attitude towards KY changed. Pitino Changed when he started at UL, his teams were like thugs, players had off court problems. Then this Karen Spyher deal. Not the same Rick Pitino and I would not want him coaching my son or daughter now. As for Coach Calipari, I’m a fan of Memphis also and I know what he did while coaching @ UM and I would be proud to have him coach my son or daughter.

  • http://www.backstreetboys.com Ajah

    Calipari!! but i did like Tubby Smith though, he was awesome..

  • KYB-Ball

    Coach Cal all the way…today. People need to understand that Pitino needed KY to get his ring and Coach Cal will soon follow. Cal makes you good every year, Pitino makes a team good every 3 to 4 years.

    Coach Cal Baby!